Environmentalist organizations have used images from South Pacific islands to illustrate the disastrous effects of rising sea levels. But a group of French researchers has found that the problem is much more complicated: The islands are also being pulled under by shifting tectonic plates.
The island’s inhabitants divide Vanikoro roughly into three tribal areas, and they speak four different languages. Vanikoro lies more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Australia and, like many of Oceania’s islands, was created by volcanic activity, its destiny determined by the rubbing and colliding of continental plates. The researchers from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) plan to spend two days investigating this geological spectacle.
A Tiny Island with Global Significance
The first day begins with a disappointment: When Ballu and her team set out to find the location where they measured the island’s elevation seven years ago, they discover that their most important survey marker, originally placed a safe distance from the beach, is now underwater, with the sea eroding the metal piece and its concrete base. “That’s probably caused it to slide down,” remarks geologist Stephane Calmant, 52, who fears this renders the marker “useless.”
Still, this development offers proof of at least one thing: that the coast here is in motion. But the question remains: Is the sea level rising, or is the island sinking? “The questions we’re trying to answer here on Vanikoro have global significance,” Ballu says.
Indeed, since water levels are rising faster around the islands of the South Pacific than anywhere else on Earth, the region has become an important object of study for oceanographers, climate researchers and geologists. At the same time, it draws the attention of politicians and ecologists to these remote islands.
Not far south of Vanikoro, the island of Tegua is home to the people the United Nations declared the world’s “first climate change refugees” in 2005. On Tegua, part of the island nation of Vanuatu, an entire village had to relocate due to rising water levels, and global media publicized photographs of a coconut plantation submerged in water, reclaimed by the sea.
That village relocation on Tegua “underlines the increasingly drastic measures now underway to conserve low-lying communities as a result of the rise in human-made emissions to the atmosphere,” the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned at the time. Klaus Töpfer, a German politician with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the UNEP’s executive director at the time, bleakly noted: “The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storms surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which eventually will touch everyone on the planet.”
A Battle for Every Millimeter
But does the fate of the village on Tegua really lend itself to being held up as a symptom of global warming? The researchers from France have their doubts, and they’re here on Vanikoro to look for evidence.